In continuation of our series on Wild Edibles, we’ll take a visit to the southeast. The southeastern states are renowned for their mild winter climate and warm summer months. The long growing season and humid, sub-tropical climate makes foraging for wild edibles possible throughout most of the year. Surviving on wild edibles in the southeast is just a matter of knowing what to look for.
Here are two common plants that crop up as soon as the frost breaks, and can be harvested from early spring to late autumn.
Wild onion (Allium canadense L. var. mobilense)
Wild onion or meadow garlic grows in open, unshaded grasslands. It is similar in appearance to a plant called crow poison but is easily distinguished by its garlicky smell. Wild onions are very similar in appearance, texture and taste to green onions (scallions). The stems grow to be 6-8 inches tall. Like green onions, they have a hollow stem that can be eaten. Wild onions bloom in early spring and occasionally will bloom again in late fall. Both the bulb and greens of wild onions are edible. Wild onions are a perennial plant. If you take note of a patch during the warmer months and remember where they are located, the bulbs can be dug up and eaten in winter, when other wild edibles are scarce.
Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
Jerusalem Artichoke is a member of the sunflower family. It is somewhat unique in that its tuber stores the carbohydrates needed for it to grow. This tuber grows to be the size of a small carrot and is packed full of nutrients. 150 grams of tuber can contain as much as 50 mg of potassium, as well as iron, fiber, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus, and copper. It is usually best to harvest in autumn after the tuber has had a full year to grow.
When cooking, think of them as a substitute for potatoes. Most people recommend steaming the tubers before eating, but they can also be boiled or cut thin and eaten raw. It is worth noting that Jerusalem Artichoke is renowned for its “after effects“. Think twice before eating it in the presence of company you may be trying to impress. One famous collector of plants described them by saying, “Which way so ever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men”.
Snacks for the Trail
Here are some plants that are relatively common, tasty to eat and easy to harvest. Of course, they can be added to your survival diet, but they also make for an easy snack when spotted while hiking.
Wild Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana)
American Persimmon may look much like a tomato and taste much like an apricot, but they are actually the largest berry in North America. They grow in the open woods, along fence rows, in parks and in backyards. Wild persimmons can be eaten out of hand or cooked in a variety of ways. Its seeds can be roasted and added to coffee as an extender. The leaves are packed full of Vitamin C and can be used as tea. The fruit itself is higher in nutrients like vitamin C and calcium than the Japanese persimmon you find in your local grocery store. When cooking, puree the pulp and use in place of mashed bananas, in any baked goods recipe that calls for them.
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria viriniana)
The white flower can be found in fields starting in the early spring and is easy to identify. Wild strawberries begin to ripen in late spring and can be found until mid summer. The fruit is much smaller than its grocery store cousin, but many feel the wild variety is more flavorful. There is well documented evidence that humans have been foraging for wild strawberries since the Stone Age. Compounds found in the stomachs of early man suggest they are one of the oldest verifiable food sources eaten by modern man. They can be picked and eaten right off the plant or harvested in bulk to be used in everything from jams to liquors.
Cooking With Wild Edibles
Not all wild edibles are simply hiking novelties. If you are lucky enough to live by a plentiful source, many wild edibles can be used as unique additions to your day-to-day cooking.
Milkweed (Asclepias syriacqa)
Milkweed is one of the most versatile wild edibles in North America. In early spring, the shoots can be boiled and eaten like green beans or asparagus. When flower buds first appear, in the early summer, they can be harvested for about seven weeks. The buds look like immature heads of broccoli and have roughly the same flavor as the shoots. These flower buds are wonderful in a stir-fry, soup, rice casseroles and many other vegetable dishes. Just be sure to wash out any creepy crawlies that may be living in them.
After the flowers are harvested, the pods can also be used in soups and stir fry. Like “The Giving Tree” of garden weeds, milkweed also offers the knowledgeable forager an edible alternative in mid fall. After the pods have matured, the silk inside can be boiled and use as filler. This stringy nutrient-rich fluff acts much like mozzarella cheese, when baked into pasta sauces or casseroles.
Have any other interesting uses for these wild edibles? Post them in the comments!